May 30, 2010
I interview Playwrights Part 183: Joshua James
Hometown: Farnhamville, Iowa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farnhamville,_Iowa
Current Town: New York City (specifically, Astoria, Queens: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astoria,_Queens)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've recently completed a screenplay called A BLACK HEART, an action thriller, which is being handled by Bunce Media and Captivate Entertainment. I'm thrilled, I'm very proud of the script and they're great people to work with.
Currently I'm working on a new screenplay, another action thriller, don't know if I can describe it as of yet because I'm still in rough draft mode and discovering things, but I'm really having fun with it.
Q: How do you approach writing a film as opposed to writing a play?
A: Hmm, Well, this could be tricky to answer, heheheh ... bear in mind I consider myself still a student and still learning about both ... but I guess I'd say that when you prepare to write a film you need to know who your audience is for it beforehand, at least the genre of films that I write.
With a play, you can just write what you think might be cool and if other people dig it, then they try to find an audience for it (at least, that's how theatre used to be, when I started as a playwright) ... the business of film is such that, it's kind of hard to do that (though not impossible), especially with the costs involved in making a movie. It's smart to know exactly what audience you're aiming for when writing a film, I think.
I'd say that the other thing is that there is also a very specific set of expectations with regard to screenplays, especially with certain genres ... with a play, I can write as much or as little as I want, no second act, no other characters, it doesn't even have to be logical, the only thing that will matter is whether or not someone will be willing to sit through it ... in other words, zero expectations beyond DON'T BE BORING, with a play.
With a film of course it's important that it not be boring, but it's also very different, there's a very specific set of expectations not only from the people who buy and make movies, but from the millions of people who watch them every day ... you know?
I mean, movies permeate all our lives in a very different way from theatre, nearly everyone you know sees multiple movies per week, on DVD or on TV or in the cinema ... Even someone not in the profession, it's not usual for them to see three to five movies a week. Whereas most of us may see one play a week, if that, a truck driver in Iowa will see many more movies than that in a week, just for fun.
That kind of familiarity creates a set of expectations that a writer has to acknowledge and deal with, in one fashion or another, and it gets even more complicated when you talk about genres and the like.
The expectations for what a movie is, and can be, or should be, while in screenplay form, is a matter of significant consideration for those who make movies, which is understandable because movies cost millions of dollars to make. Even indie films have their own expectations for what they're meant to be.
I know some writers find those expectations limiting, but what is exciting is when someone is somehow able to transcend those expectations, that's kind of what I love about movies. I don't find them limiting, it's a form that can be very freeing, in its way.
I guess I consider film scripts to be very much like haikus, but rather than working with three lines consisting of five, seven and five syllables, you're working with three acts consisting of 25, 55, and 25 pages apiece ... and the goal, like in a haiku, is to be as emotionally complex and moving in as few words as possible. That's what's really awesome about movies, when you think about it.
Plays can do that as well, of course. But they also don't have to, and that's kind of what's awesome about plays. They can be, quite literally, anything you want them to be.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: When my brother and I were tow-headed youngsters with scabs on our elbows, we'd get on our bicycles, peddle like mad down this broken sidewalk and reenact the opening sequence of the show THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, which is, for those who haven't seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HofoK_QQxGc
We'd peddle furiously and do Steve Austin's lines from the opening:
"I got a blowout, pare for three!"
"The pitch is out, I can't hold altitude!"
"I can't hold her, she's breaking up, she's breaking up!"
And then we'd deliberately CRASH our bikes off the sidewalk into someone's lawn.
We'd do this again and again, and invariably some adult would see this and go, "You kids are gonna hurt yourself, you keep that up."
And we'd reply, "But this is how Steve Austin became the Six Million Dollar Man!"
I think that speaks to much of what I do now, heheheh.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I guess I'd have to echo the answer I'm sure you've heard from many of our peers, which is that the artists, specifically the writers, need to be paid on a level equal to the other craftspeople in the industry ... they need to be compensated for their work, or the business is going to continue to lose them to other mediums.
Sam Shepard has said, "You can't make a living as a playwright, you can just barely scrape by" and brother, he knew what he was talking about. It's pretty ridiculous, and I don't know what the answer is, whether it means playwrights need a union or what, but it's a very specific reason why so many playwrights immediately write for film and TV when they can ... to make a living.
I mean, I love movies, I love writing them, too, in my heart I'm a movie geek, so for me it's a dream come true to be able to do that kind of work ... I also love writing plays, theatre is the most fun a person can have with their pants on, but I have a son now and I want to be able to feed him, so ... you know. When he was born, I made a specific choice on what my career focus was going to be from there on.
People seem to forget that Jonathon Larson, author of RENT, lived in poverty for years, he lived in an apartment without heat for ten years, worked a waiter and had shows go up, there were multiple workshops of RENT for a couple years where the actors got paid, the designers got paid, the SMs got paid and you know the rent of the theatre was paid, but he wasn't paid, and he complained about it (according to what I've read) and was told this is how it works, he'll make money when the show hits big ... if I recall correctly, Larson got a grant a couple months before the show opened and only then was he able to quit his job as a waiter (in Oct or Nov) before the Jan opening of the show and, as everyone knows, he died before the opening, died of something that could have been caught and cured, had he insurance and not needed to depend on ER for health care.
He died and then made millions for others, but I'm sure if he'd at least been able to make a living wage like the other artists, it may have been different.
It's more than sad, it's maddening. And what's ridiculous is the looks a playwright gets when you complain about stuff like this, like we should feel grateful they're even doing our work for free!
I had a show done where they were only gonna pay me hundred bucks for the whole run, even tho' the actors were collecting union scale, and then the theatre didn't even pay me the hundred they owed me - LOL!
Really, it's the one thing I'd change, not only for the industry (who loses great writers to film, TV and comic books) but for the writers themselves, there are playwrights I know who are only happy writing plays, that's all they want to do, that's all that turns them on, they're not into movies and don't watch TV, they're only happy writing plays ... I think they should be able to make a living at it, if they so choose, and not have to teach or write TV to make a living if they don't wish to ...
It makes me realize how lucky I am that I love to write different stories in different mediums, I love movies, I love TV, I love books, theatre, I love it all and I'm fortunate for that.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Well, here are a few ... Charles Schutz. Creator of good Ole' Charlie Brown. I didn't have real theatre, where I lived, growing up, and my first, great influence was Charles Schutz. He was a master, he truly was, I wrote more about it here: http://writerjoshuajames.com/dailydojo/?p=487
My brother and I devoured Peanuts comics growing up. Everything a person needs to know about writing grand epic tragedy for the people in as few words as possible, you can learn from Charlie Brown.
John Hughes ... again, the bard of puberty, The Breakfast Club was a huge influence on me, and still is, and what's interesting is that it is such a great movie that is so NOT like a movie, a film like this wouldn't get made today, it's five kids in ONE ROOM, it's R-rated and NO NUDITY, it's five people talking for two hours ... I mean, it's basically a play!
Sam Shepard ... hard to be a theatre major and not be influenced by him, he's a rock star, and the thing I remember, when I got to college and started reading him, is that he totally upended what I thought theatre was, he wasn't writing drawing room satires, after all, I remember reading SAVAGE LOVE and being utterly blown away, thinking, "you can actually DO this in theatre? How cool!"
Anne Bogart ... I know you hear a lot about her, from others, but she changed my life, she came to Iowa during my grad years and I did a week long seminar and it literally changed my life ... I believe I am a writer now because I met her, there's just something about that work that again made me realize, "you can DO THIS in theatre? HOW COOL!" I later took an internship with her, it's how I ended up in New York City.
So ironic, because she's really (at least then) not that interested in story or acting, she's more interested in sound and movement, and lights, and events ... but it somehow just rang a bell with me. She's pretty cool, there's a reason so many love her.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Lots of kinds, but I guess if I had to pick (and that's what you're asking, after all) I really, really like plays that explore language, I really do ...
Amy Tan (the novelist) told Stephen King that, while doing book tours, she gets sad because "Nobody asks me about the language" and I totally got that, language is important, the words and how they're strung together, in unique and fascinating ways, I really love that ... I remember the first time I saw my friend Naomi's play IN THE HEART OF AMERICA which is a rocking piece that more folks should know about, it does things that you can only do in theatre (it has the past, present and future on stage all at once) but even more moving was the language (Naomi is a poet, after all).
Paula Vogel has her own language, Kushner, Shepard, Brecht. There's a bunch of writers who do that, I remember seeing a one act by Sheila Callaghan some years back called HE ATE THE SUN that just blew me away, I really dug it, I felt I could feel the language like it was a real thing, heavy, in the air. Things like that, they're exciting.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Don't write plays as filler when you really want to write something else ... write plays cause you love 'em. Know your voice and don't abuse it or allow others to abuse it.
Be humble, but at the same time, don't be afraid to walk away from a bad director, a bad theatre, a bad show or group who doesn't appreciate the work ... you can always premiere later, but you can only do it once.
As my very wise manager has told me, there's no such thing as a "good bad deal" ... bad deals are bad deals, whether with friends or strangers. I've found him to be exactly right on this time and time again. Protect yourself, as humbly as you can.
Have something that you value in life other than the work, whether friends or family or meditation or yoga, your self-worth should not and cannot be linked only to what you do for a living ... it's not healthy.
I have great friends and peers, a cool dojo to train in, a wonderful wife and a truly awesome son who help me to appreciate how lucky I am, no matter what I write. Your writing should be an important part of your life, but not the only one.
The title of Gale Sayers's book was I AM THIRD ... he said it called it that because:
God comes first.
My family comes second.
I am third.
I am a Buddhist and therefore don't believe in God, but I've long admired the above saying and think it very wise in its humility.
And let's face it, Brian's Song is a fantastic movie.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My short plays THE PAP and F*CK YOU! open at City Theatre in Miami in a few days, link here: http://www.citytheatre.com/ It's their world premiere.
I have a collection being published by Original Works coming out soon: http://www.originalworksonline.com/
It will be titled The THE Plays, and it features my plays:
Also, I did the screen adaptation of Peter Biskind's DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES which is in pre-production now, with Vincent D'Onofrio, Matthew Perry, Hugh Dancy, Andy Serkis, Sally Hawkins, Toby Jones, Bobby Carnnavale and many others, directed by the awesome Ken Bowser, so when it comes out I hope you go see it, it's gonna be great.
More info at my site: www.writerjoshuajames.com
In addition, I'd also like to point those who are interested in more screenwriting information over to my good friend Scott Myers, who created www.gointothestory.com, what I consider to be the best screenwriting resource there is online. And Scott's a great guy, to boot. I've learned a much from him.